At a grand lu‘au held Easter weekend at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua’s 20th annual Celebration of the Arts, a five-minute misunderstanding struck me in a way that few moments have.
See, it wasn’t the sort of resort-style lu‘au that the world’s come to know–with fire dancers, coconut bras and mountains of chicken nuggets. Rather, it was the culminating event of a unique festival, a nonpareil cultural happening that each year–through fine art, music and intelligent conversation–nudges fledgling flight in a phoenix of a culture that’s colloquially called Hawaiian.
But of the several hundred people in attendance, just a fraction were in-the-know. The rest were tourists–many staying at resorts other than the Ritz–who were sold on a once-a-year experience to glimpse a glitzy bit of Hawaiian culture created by and for its natives.
When the band leader called hula dancers from the audience on stage–to “honor them” with a special song that all hula people were sure to know–something very strange happened. A group of little blond girls, prodded by their parents, marched onstage instead. They stood in a line, doe-eyed and terrified, waiting for their first hula lesson.
No one knew what to do.
Their parents had assumed this was that part of a lu‘au (as is the case with every other) where little girls go onstage to kaholo to the left and right. It was not. But the band leader improvised, saying, “OK girls, turn around and try to follow along with da aunties.” As if they could! The dance moves were complicated, meant for practiced performers.
With their backs to the audience, the little girls raised limp arms, wiggled their fingers and stuck their hips out at odd angles. Instead of imitating the authentic dancers in eyeshot, they mimed what they remembered from cartoons and their parents’ vaudeville gesticulations following too many Mai Tais. Stranger still, the little girls had assembled on an auxiliary stage–set up in front and away from the main stage (for an special offsite performance of ‘Ulalena, scheduled later in the program)–which completely obscured the real dancers.
Astounded, an awkward knot consumed my throat. What a metaphor for this place and its people! And a spotlight on the ways in which Hawaiians have been accomplice to our own appropriation! Suddenly, what had once felt utterly stolen from Hawaiian culture instead felt innocently spoiled by antipodal cultures’ inevitable clash.
Those poor little girls and their rich parents! I felt angry at them, but only had myself to blame. After all, we’re taught never to bite the hands that feed us.
Soon afterward, we were treated to a performance of the stage show ‘Ulalena, wherein Hawaiian primal meets French Canadian postmodernism. Decidedly different from the whole lu‘au thing, the contrast it provided inspired a meditation on how Hawaiian performing arts is presented to our visitors.
See, ‘Ulalena itself is another intriguing metaphor for the state of Hawaii in 2012. And notwithstanding some tough love critique, it proves–and alludes to–a very proud Hawaiian history in the making.
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All day the stars watch from long ago / my mother said I am going now / when you are alone you will be all right / whether or not you know you will know / look at the old house in the dawn rain / all the flowers are forms of water / the sun reminds them through a white cloud / touches the patchwork spread on the hill / the washed colors of the afterlife / that lived there long before you were born / see how they wake without a question / even though the whole world is burning.
– “Rain Light” by W.S. Merwin
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‘Ulalena is a story that could only come from these isolated igneous isles, and is named for a coral colored rain found only on Maui (one of dozens of Hawaiian words meant to capture the specificities of certain precipitation in certain places). Five nights a week for nearly 13 years strong–in Lahaina’s multimillion-dollar Maui Theatre, remodeled especially for the show–‘Ulalena encapsulates the breadth of Hawaii’s story as viewed through a contemporary, cirque-inspired lens.
In the Hawaiian storytelling way, it begins in as far back a beginning as can be imagined, with the native creation chant called the Kumulipo. In darkness, a conch sounds. With a flash of white light, a pahu drum begins to slowly beat. Cast members–each gorgeously cut and sun-goldened–make a solemnly proud procession toward the stage. Guttural oli engulfs the room and the show’s ambient foundation is set.
“O ke au i kahuli wela ka honua / O ke au i kahuli lole ka lani / O ke au i kuka’iaka ka la / E ho’omalamalama i ka malama…”
“At the time when the earth became hot / At the time when the heavens turned about / At the time when the sun was darkened / To cause the moon to shine…”
So begins an interpretive journey through Hawaiian history, steeped in native myth and wrought with jewel tones. The demigod Maui exhumes the islands from an ocean of massive iridescent fish, puppeteered by performers. Huge canoes are carried across a star-strewn stage, depicting celestial navigators from Southern seas. The spirit of kalo, the staple crop and proverbial progenitor of Hawaii’s people, is born. Local lore of a lizard goddess’ waterfall play is portrayed through a silk aerialist’s acrobatics. Mana gives mysterious movement and sound to a Lahaina Banyan-inspired forest of stilt-walking artists. Kamapua‘a, a bold, half-boar demigod, attempts to seduce Pele, the goddess of fire. Women beat kapa cloth under the watchful eye of the moon goddess, Hina. Men raise large carved stones to beat kalo into poi. Ambitious warriors battle for love and loyalty.
These mysterious moments are cut by coy suggestiveness and caricatured humor–and all is augmented by an insanely talented live band that’s accentuated–and in some ways masked–by many techy bells and whistles.
Then, during a scene about the Makahiki season–a festival dedicated to the god Lono, who’s traditionally symbolized by white kapa draped over a cross–Captain Cook arrives bearing alcohol, guns, trinkets and disease. His ships’ masts bear an all-too striking similarity to the insignia of Lono, and the natives reach out longingly toward him. Brown monarchs swimming in Victorian pomp waltz through the mayhem.
The show then transitions to immigration and a terrifying dance evoking the toil of the sugar plantations; the seeds of our colorful modern culture. Dramatically, Pele then purges the scene with her molten condemnation and a giant red cloth’s pulled over the audience. No one seems sure whether to clap or cry.
In the quiet aftermath, we see the kalo spirit lying limp and alone. A la Tinker Bell, with a little audience-participation magic he is resurrected by rain sounds made of several hundred palms rubbed together, tapped and slapped.
Uplifting and catchy, the show’s hallmark song then closes the show, asking “Auhea wale ana ‘oe, E ta ua ‘Ulalena / Oh where are you ‘Ulalena rain?” Finally, red and yellow confetti falls from the ceiling.
The first and only endeavor of its kind, it’s hard–if not impossible–to find any criticisms inked of ‘Ulalena, be it in a local pub or The New York Times. The show is polished, professional and a proven success. What’s not to love?
But frankly, in the years that had passed since I’d first seen the show, I’d almost forgotten about it. To me, it had disappeared into Resort Land alongside the modern lu‘au, the Sugar Cane Train and shopping on Front Street.
Then last fall I became fast, dear friends with three of ‘Ulalena’s cast members–Kalapana Kollers, Vene Chun and Kamalu Eleban–and was reintroduced to the show in a powerful, inside-out way. They are the kind of Hawaiian supermen who make me feel damned lucky to be their brethren; the rare kind of people who inspire me to be open, upright, patient and strong.
Together we practice an ancient martial art that was almost lost to antiquity (and that, pursuant to the first and second rules of such a fight club, I’m already in trouble for simply mentioning–but do anyway because the context is critical). Deep in the jungle we bruise, bleed and bond with sweat and screams that demands of our ancestors their skillful secrets. I’ll never have the strength of my commrades’ bodies, and can only aspire to their strength of character.
Through all this I’ve had a chance to learn how these men infuse every moment of their lives with all things Hawaiian, and how this inflects their spirited performances in ‘Ulalena. Needless to say, I stand in awe of them and their consummate care for our re-burgeoning culture.
Because of this, it’s been challenging to incorporate the critique from my colleagues who helped me review the show. And when I reflect without bias, I share their concerns that ‘Ulalena’s French Canadian coloring and cirque costumes (no fault of the performers) haven’t been able to keep up with the contemporary flair that was intended 13 years ago–particularly when paired with a story that has so much intrinsic worth and is presented with so much heart. The show’s poppy, late ‘90s patters do the ‘Ulalena story little justice, even when performers outshine their outfits.
These guys (and girls) in the show aren’t hollow hotties who spend their evenings pretending and prancing for ogling old snowbirds. I know them to be real warriors who challenge themselves to become more real everyday. And though they’re in every moment kind and full of light, they could quickly rip the veins out your throat with their teeth.
Every aging thing begs the question of how and if it’s meant to be kept in perpetuity. It’s easy to agree that artsy reflections of deep cultural things should be preserved. But it’s also easy to forget that the elements meant to be contemporary are also meant to evolve.
Of course, there’s something to be said for a show’s unadulterated longevity. Particularly with regards to theater, the longer something remains unchanged, the more clout it has.
If nothing else, ‘Ulalena proves that there are talented people passionate about a story worth telling and that the market for it is profitable. And after much reflection, there’s a part of me that loves its dated side–in the way that I love those little girls at the lu‘au–in the sense that it speaks to a native people’s cosmopolitan place in a very specific time.
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Rain clouds have an eye-catching way of going about their business–and rightly so, I think. They’re the great, gaseous incarnations of the one thing all known life can’t live without. Even Wikipedia waxes poetic when it describes how water “moves perpetually through [the] water cycle”; how it covers almost two-thirds of Earth’s surface and composes most of the human body. No wonder it’s a sacred substance.
Whenever I pause long enough to give clouds their due credit, I’m rewarded with a reminder of our niche on this Goldilocks planet. What luck we have, being sentient things from this lonely albeit peopling place, cozily tucked into the Milky Way’s Orion Spur suburbs. And how mercurial the ways we’ve enacted our existence, attempted to explain it, and sought to define it for the future. Humans have such a curious tale!
I like to believe that if some story-hungry cosmic observer happened upon us, it’d find the strangest and sweetest of Earth’s ongoing sagas in Hawaii. Because somehow–here, in the belly of our vastest ocean–the most isolated archipelago in the world is home to a most tragic kingdom.
An ancient race of seafarers, warriors, craftsmen and storytellers… Colonialization by the conquests of capitalism and Western religion… A Pacific melting pot built on the backs of big sugar plantation labor… A monarchy overthrown… A language nearly decimated… Hollywood homogenization… Omnipotent tourism…
Millennia in the making, this ill-starred tradition is now in the hands of the generations reared of and since Hawaii’s 1970s cultural renaissance. And for the first time since American rule, Hawaiians aren’t discouraged from discovering–and redefining–their roots.
Ironically, what’s made Hawaii a pop obsession has had more to do with its climate than its culture. So, outside of academics and practitioners’ study, Hawaiian history is mostly misunderstood.
But whether inculcated or ignorant of it, ‘Ulalena is the sole perennial portal that allows–through performing arts–a peek into Hawaii’s beautifully torn past. It is a story of a rain found only on Maui; and in that I can’t help but rejoice.